Wednesday, April 21, 2010
How To Pull A Henry Higgins
Much like people, some vegetables are just not attractive. There, I said it. I know, I know, all people are beautiful in their own way, but let's get serious: If you had to choose between a gorgeous, plump peak tomato, or a knobby, peak Jerusalem artichoke, which would you choose? In fact, I can think of not one person holding their breath for any of the pale, hairy produce of winter, while most of us are clamoring for even just a glimpse at the season's first piece of asparagus. But again, as with people, sometimes the beauty of fresh ingredients lurks deep within, requiring careful coaxing and manipulation to shine through. But more often than not it lies just beneath the surface, requiring little more than a peel and scrub to reveal its inner Eliza Doolittle.
I recently decided to perform my own little My Fair Lady/Pygmalion style transformation on the aforementioned Jerusalem artichoke, also known as the sunchoke. Knobby and brown and generally unremarkable in flavor and appearance, they're often missed by farmers market shoppers or confused with potatoes and turnips and other miscellaneous winter produce. They certainly are the wallflower of the market, but something about them struck me during my most recent visit. Surrounded by the season's first spring greens—watercress, arugula, and baby swiss chard, I couldn't help but see these woody little suckers in a new light. Why not pair them with the best of what the season has to offer, dressing them (so to speak) with a simple and sophisticated vinaigrette? Adding some bright ingredients might act like a sweep of shadow over the lids or a dab of gloss on the lips, contouring the sunchokes and making up for what isn't there while accenting what works. Its crunchy texture and mild flavor are its best asset, which are easy to flaunt with the right companion ingredients.
With all of what was now available at the market it wasn't hard to find what to use or figure out what the final dish should be. I find sunchokes to be significantly more delicious in their raw state, which is crunchy with a raw potato-like texture. The flavor is somewhere between a Yukon gold potato and an artichoke heart or stem, which I much prefer to its cooked flavor (which I find to be overly sweet and reminiscent of parsnips). After wrestling with exactly what to do I decided to finely slice the sunchokes (which were at their peak and abnormally large and smooth) with my mandoline, and use them as a base for a transitional seasonal salad. I laid them flat on a plate, slightly overlapping each other, and gave them a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon, which would help them to stay nice and bright (much like potatoes, they can start to brown once peeled). After a healthy pinch of salt and fresh black pepper I reached for the lovely spring greens I'd bought at the market—arugula, watercress and young rainbow Swiss chard, and dressed them simply as well (but with a little lemon zest for extra zip). I piled them high atop my plate, already blanketed with sunchokes, and ate the whole thing (along with seconds) as a light spring dinner.
The sunchokes held their own alongside the gorgeous greens, standing out for their snappy crunch and subdued sweetness, the perfect compliment to the airy, peppery greens. I'm sure we can all relate to this Cinderella story somehow, although I do find that with food (unlike people) it's a lot easier to make the unappealing beautiful. Sometimes it's about cracking that tough outer shell, or carefully peeling back the layers and digging deep within, like an artichoke whose thorny leaves struggle to protect its tender heart. I suppose in the end we're not so different from that artichoke. So the next time you see something at the market or in a store that looks tough, complicated, or maybe even a little bit ugly, give it a try. You never know what beauty and flavor may lurk beneath the surface.
Sunchoke and Spring Green Salad
(makes 2 generous portions or 4 salad course portions)
2 large or 4 small sunchokes (try to get the fattest ones you can find)
4 cups of spring greens (this can be anything from a mesclun mix to arugula, baby swiss chard, or watercress)
1 lemon (juice and zest)
extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
1. Zest the lemon into a small bowl or plate and set both the lemon and the zest aside.
2. Thinly slice sunchokes (about 1/16 inch) using a mandoline or the slicing tool of a box grater (or very steady knife-work). Place slices flat on a plate so most of the plate is covered in a thin layer of overlapping slices. Drizzle with good extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Season liberally with salt and black pepper.
3. Place greens in a large bowl and drizzle lightly with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Season liberally with salt and pepper and toss to combine. Add lemon zest and toss to combine. Top sunchokes with greens and serve. Enjoy!